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Experts highlight link between addiction and human trafficking

Union Leader Correspondent

November 04. 2016 9:32PM

Hanni Stoklosa, executive director of HEAL Trafficking, speaks Friday at a human trafficking conference hosted by St. Joseph Hospital in Nashua. (Kimberly Houghton/Union Leader Correspondent)

NASHUA — Human trafficking, a hidden problem in New Hampshire and other states, is now becoming even more challenging to fix as opioid addiction is crippling victims and survivors, experts say.

“Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t real,” said Dr. Hanni Marie Stoklosa, executive director of HEAL Trafficking.

Drugs are being used in the initial grooming process for trafficking victims, and it is eventually requiring survivors to deal with detox, depression and suicidal tendencies, according to Stoklosa, a guest speaker at Friday’s human trafficking conference hosted by St. Joseph Hospital.

Parents are trafficking their children to feed their own drug addictions, and trap houses are operating where addicts come seeking drugs and are not permitted to leave, she added.

“We are not going to treat our way out of this,” said Stoklosa, stressing the importance of being proactive and teaching health providers the signs to detect labor or sex trafficking victims.

The problem is complicated, and it cannot be solved overnight, agreed Erin Albright, regional program director for Give Way to Freedom.

Albright was instrumental in helping New Hampshire receive a federal grant to combat human trafficking in the Granite State, and participate in a joint task force to address such crimes.

“We know that we have a problem. These cases have hit every county — it is statewide,” said Albright. “We recognize that both sex and labor (trafficking) happen.”

Since 2013, there have been at least 23 recorded investigations involving forced labor or sex trafficking in New Hampshire, and that number continues to increase, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Hampshire.

“Human trafficking is a heinous crime that preys on the most defenseless victims, many of whom are minors or individuals with severe substance abuse issues,” U.S. Attorney Emily Gray Rice said in a statement this week. “With the assistance of this grant funding, our prosecutors are committed to collaborating with our law enforcement partners and incredible (non-government organizations) to provide services for human trafficking victims, and hold accountable those who are profiting from these terrible crimes.”

New Hampshire’s grant is part of a larger, $49 million grant being distributed to 25 states to fight human trafficking.

According to Rice, victims of the sex trafficking trade are often addicted to opiates or other drugs, and are sometimes forced or coerced into sexual servitude based on their fear of losing a steady supply of drugs and the prospect of experiencing withdrawal symptoms.

A statewide plan has been created to strategically tackle this problem throughout the next three years — focusing on law enforcement, services, training, data and evaluation, Albright said on Friday.

“Everything we do should be victim-centered, with a longterm approach. We need to move away from the reaction mode,” she said.

While women and children comprise 80 percent of the victims of human trafficking in America, it is not only a women’s issue — it is a human rights issue, said Kathleen Rice Orshak, vice-president of mission integration and ethics at St. Joseph Hospital.

Addressing a crowd of health-care workers, social service providers, legal and law professionals, Stoklosa said that less than one percent of trafficking victims in the United States are identified, yet 25 to 88 percent of trafficking survivors connect with some type of health care organization during their exploitation.

There are still gaps in the system that need to be addressed, and drug abuse patients must be screened for potential trafficking problems, she added.

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